Monday, October 26, 2015

Sometimes, you have to turn back

This is a belated addition to my series on our travels in 1964/65. Earlier reminiscences are identified in the Archives with the letter T, beginning with “Checkpoint Charlie” in December 2011.

My big adventure began after the Munich Oktoberfest in 1964, driving south in my Beetle into the unknown with a South African chap I’d met at a Youth Hostel. Somewhere in Yugoslavia our road suddenly ended at a river. Damn and blast! The nearest bridge was an hour away, back the way we’d just come. My map hadn’t actually promised a bridge, and it was a dirt road in the middle of nowhere; but I felt cheated, all the same.

Ah, but there was a ferry. Not a vehicle ferry as such, but one of those cable pontoon-things for pedestrians and animals. The villagers enthusiastically produced two planks, eight or ten feet long, and laid them from the ground up to the level of the deck. It was a fair gradient, and I started to drive slowly up the planks. Now… Those who have driven Beetles will know that they have virtually no weight in the front (the engine is in the rear), and are therefore very sensitive there. I felt the planks sag, and knew immediately that they wouldn’t take the weight of the whole car. 

I rolled back and asked for thicker planks, but there were none to be had. Perhaps I could take a run at the boards and get on deck before they cracked. “What do you reckon, Paul?” “Well, it’s your car”, Paul said. So, reluctantly, and to the villagers’ great disappointment, we retraced our tracks to the bridge. I wasn’t at all happy; I never liked having to retrace my steps. But, well, sigh… sometimes, you just have to turn back.

A couple of days later, we almost slipped off the side of a hill on another dirt road, with occasional patches of ice. Paul jumped up and down on the back bumper to give me just enough traction to get past the patch. A bit scary, but this time my stubbornness was rewarded.

Looking back, I must have had more confidence than it seemed at the time. Later in the adventure, Linda and I bluffed Bulgarian border-guards into letting us take contraband currency into Rumania, faced down Egyptian Customs officials who looked askance at some shoddily forged currency-exchange slips, and persuaded East German border-guards to let us pass through the Wall into West Berlin at a no-entry point. In my youthful arrogance I took it for granted that all those successes were simply my due. 

Budget travel demands confidence. You must believe in the mission. You’re taking on the whole world, with no backup except the nearest consulate, if you could reach it, and no security besides your American Express cheques if you weren’t robbed of them. So every minor victory is hard-won. How could the gods fail to be impressed with our innocent goodwill and delight in immersing ourselves in foreign cultures? And indeed they didn’t fail us – although they put a scare into us (mainly Linda) every so often, just to remind us (me) who were the gods and who weren’t.

One of my major regrets is that we never got to visit the Greek island of Rhodes. We had an opportunity, during that trip, but again I chickened out. At a village on the coast of Turkey, there was a man with a boat – and some decently thick planks – who offered to take us and the car the ten or fifteen miles across the water for about forty dollars. The ridiculous illegality of the challenge was tempting. 

Could I sweet-talk the Greek officials into letting us enter, assuming my little dictionary could supply me with the right words? Would the forty dollars include bribes? Would we ever be able to get to the Greek mainland, via other ferries and other islands? Mmm. Not easily. Maybe we could leave the car in the village and go across to Rhodes by ourselves for a couple of days. But that would bring a new risk.

Forty dollars was a huge amount of money for those villagers, and if the young foreigners could afford to pay that, maybe they could afford to pay handsomely to buy their car back when they returned. It wouldn’t have been fair to them to put such temptation in their way. (In some parts of Turkey, private cars were virtually unknown, to the extent that all cars were called “taxis”.)

In the end, common sense won out. We turned away and wended our way north to Istanbul and onward into the Soviet Empire. There were other challenges, and one notable failure to charm or bluster our illegal way through a border. That was disappointing, too; but you can’t win them all. Sometimes, you just have to turn back.